Limited details have emerged in recent days about a visit to Houston, Texas by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in August, 2008. It’s not clear if U.S. investigators were tracking the suspect at the time or whether or not they failed to detect any radical ties that should have enabled them to elevate Abdulmutallab’s status on a U.S. terror watch list to strip him of his visa or place him on the critical no-fly list.
Nigerian-born journalist Chido Nwangwu publishes USAfrica’s Class magazine and runs the USAfrica Online website from Houston, which is home to more than 100-thousand Nigerian expatriates living in the United States. He says that the man who attempted to blow up Northwest Airlines flight 253 near Detroit on Christmas Day spent his time in Houston pursuing religious studies at an islamic institute there.
“He attended an Islamic education program at the Al Maghrib Institute in Houston. That is the only knowledge of public information that we all have of his reasons for visiting here,” he said.
U.S. officials have confirmed they are looking into Abdulmutallab’s travels since the June 2008 visa he was issued, but the FBI has refused comment. Publisher Nwangwu says he was unable to confirm whether investigators were on the suspect’s trail almost one and a half years ago. He claims no insight into whether those who may have been tracking the Nigerian had cause to tie him to radical influences that could have raised his profile to refuse entry into the United States the following year.
In addition, Nwangwu says there were no signs if a recent police tip by Abdulmutallab’s Nigerian father, former First Bank of Nigeria chairman Umaru Abdul Mutallab, had been heeded by security officials in Houston. The senior Abdul Mutallab has been widely praised for his courage in coming forward to sound an alert to U.S. officials. He is expected to travel to the United States this week to attend his son’s arraignment, likely on January 8 in Detroit, Michigan
“Of course there were the ties with Al Maghrib Institute, which has offices in London and Canada. My office, U.S. Africa, also attempted to speak with the other branches of Al Maghrib in order to understand why the young man did not do his studies in London. I also asked about Houston, who paid or who registered him for the courses. There are so many questions. Who facilitated his movements? Who picked him up from his hotel? Who dropped him off? Where did he have his lunch during the training?” asked Nwangwu.
On Monday, U.S. officials placed tighter new security measures on air travelers from 14 countries considered to be added security risks. Nwangwu admits the guidelines are adding concern among Nigerians in his community who frequently travel back and forth to Africa. He says they are disappointed that the acts of one reckless individual can slur the international image of an entire nation. But he understands the need for U.S. officials to do all they can to protect the security of Americans.
“It will not be unrealistic, but it would be unfair to group the whole community. The community abhors such violence. The community abhors what I call mechanized bigotry. And it’s understandable to look for those who make trouble or seek to inflict terror, to kill people of all faiths, of all communities. The point also is that if he had unleashed a plot that was concluded successfully, Nigerians on that flight would have also been killed,” noted Nwangwu.
One official trying to get to the bottom of the investigation is one of two Houston African-American members of the U.S. Congress. Nwangwu says that Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, who chairs the Subcommittee on Transportation Security and Infrastructure Protection, shares concerns for the safety of all Americans, including the thousands of foreign-born people living and working in the Houston area. Nwangwu also plans to meet Tuesday with Houston’s other African-American U.S. congressman, Rep. Al Green.
“On an intellectual level, it is very wrong to engage in group profiling or to band everybody in one basket,” he says.
“In terms of the operational reality of saying that if a flight or certain travelers are coming from any place where there is potential danger, they should take a second look for the safety of everyone -- that is not too much to ask. It is an entirely different matter. I vehemently oppose anyone saying that Nigerians are terrorists. No, Nigerians are not,” he observed.
Although Umar Abdulmutallab’s mission originated in Ghana, Ghana was not among the countries cited Monday as U.S. security risks. Journalist Nwangwu acknowledges that flying from Ghana to Nigeria reduced Abdulmutallab’s holdover at Lagos’ Murtalla Muhammed Airport from two hours to a 30-minute holdover and suggests that other countries outside this week’s U.S. restrictions also pose threats of international terrorism to American cities.
“Egypt holds a significant number of radical Islamic zealots. (Ayman) Al-Zawahiri, one of the twin leaders of al-Qaida, is an Egyptian. There are radical elements in Egypt. They were not listed. So the Obama administration needs to look a little further. I know they are being sensitive to the fact that the young man was in a transition movement,” he explained.
To counter tighter restrictions, Nwangwu points out that what he calls “evil geniuses” will continue to devise creative, innovative ways to get around the regulations. The Houston journalist says he supports international efforts to plug the loopholes. But also recalling that the September, 2001 attacks all originated within the United States, he contends that there is no substitute for stepped-up vigilance on all possible fronts.